Friday, February 8, 2008

Not The Kind Of Friends I Want To Have

Years ago I spent some time in Europe, pack on my back, guitar slung over my shoulder, traveling through about 15 different countries. Eventually, I found myself walking through the desert of Eastern Greece, heading to the Turkish border. Then on to Istanbul. I’d been hitch hiking all day. I was out in the middle of nowhere. Alone. There were very few cars. Two or three an hour. No one would stop. But I had a good sense of direction, and in the early evening decided to leave the road and cut cross country on foot. If I was going to end up walking all the way to the border, I’d at least cut down on the distance. It was flat, and I figured I’d be OK. I pointed myself in the right direction and began the long trek through the desert. I walked for hours. It was very dark. And I was very tired. I could see the faintest of lights way off in the imperceptible distance. So far away that I wasn’t exactly sure if I was really seeing them at all.

I was living a hard trip. No frills, no pampering niceties. Alone for days, and weeks on end. Walking, carrying my life on my back. Intermittent company, but no one I wished to be around for too long. Evaluating my life, my circumstances, my future. Some concern with all of that, but overshadowed by my immediate concern about getting to Istanbul.

And now, it was the middle of the night, well past midnight. I was walking with the dead, practically counting myself among them. Then I began to sense a presence. Never a good sign. At first just faintly, then stronger, until I was sure I was no longer alone. It was then that I began to wish I was. It felt now as if it were getting closer. And closer still. And then a sound. Over here. And then over there. And there. And there. I couldn’t tell if it was different sounds in different places, or if it was just one sound that my own fear was moving around like manic thoughts in a bad dream. Then the sound was close enough to see. A dog. Not a friendly dog. And another. And another. And another. These were big dogs. And they were wild dogs. I was surrounded. I was prey. I was going to be dinner. Never been that before. This was a gang without guns. The pack moved with me as one. They moved around me, darting in briefly to challenge me, to test me, to frighten me. Then out. One, then another. Then another. Growling, grunting. Frenzied, but deliberate. Building their confidence, working their strategy. Scaring me to death. This was no hallucination. And it was not a situation I could talk my way out of. I knew that better than my own name. I’d been in bad situations that I could talk my way out of. This was not one of them. I was frantically swinging my guitar around, trying to keep them at bay. My mind flooded with rampaging thoughts that my family would never see me again. That I would never see them. That they would simply never hear from me again. That I would have, in their minds, simply disappeared, deserted them somewhere across the world, never to be a part of them again. My survival instincts kicked fully into gear. High gear. I would live. Dogs be damned.

I was quickly taken by vivid memories of old black and white Cowboy and Indian movies I’d seen on TV as a child. Pictures that came to me as clearly as the danger I was in. I remembered in the old movies that when the wagon train was surrounded, with the settlers hanging on for their lives, they’re final hope would come down to whether or not they could shoot the Chief. If they killed him, all the other Indians would retreat. If they were unsuccessful they would perish. Yeah, I know it was a stupid Cowboy and Indian stereotype, but it’s the only image I had to hang onto at the time. It’s the image that came to my rescue.

I had a strong sense of which dog was the leader, the Alpha male, whom the others were taking their cues from. He would dart in quickly, and the rest of the pack would do likewise. When he’d back off, they would as well, momentarily, but I saw the pattern. I attacked him full on. I yelled like a crazy nut job in a ‘B’ movie, and ran at him full force, attacking him head on with my guitar. I was not trying to scare him, I was wanting to hurt him. But it did scare him, and he backed off, as did the others, a little further each time I came after him. The dogs would regroup and make subsequent attempts to penetrate my defenses, but as time went by the attacks became more half-hearted than vicious. I continued walking through the night with the dogs consistently holding position around me, still moving as one, for hours, but in a gradually widening circle. Time passed like molasses. By morning light they were gone.

I offered a humble thanks out loud.

I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I took psychic inventory to make sure I was OK, then laid myself down in a quiet place, under a tree, and fell off to sleep.
In Istanbul they told me about wild dogs in the desert. Dogs I’d already met. Not the kind of friends I want to have.

I’ve been seriously threatened by gangs on three different occasions in my life. In Amsterdam, in Harlem, and outside a clinic where I worked in San Francisco. Had a gun stuck in my chest and the hammer cocked. Twice. Been surrounded by men who considered killing me simply because they could. Been more moderately threatened on a couple of other occasions.
I have never been as frightened as I was that night in the desert, alone with the dogs. I have never felt more abandoned or forlorn.

And when I awoke later that morning, under that tree, in that small quiet place . . . . . . . . . . .
I was never more alive.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Silence Doesn't Lie

When it comes to people, it’s remarkable really, how animals, both wild and domestic, seem to know whom they can trust and whom they can’t. There are countless antidotes about dogs or cats sensing something troubling about an acquaintance, a new boyfriend or girlfriend, a delivery man, friend of a friend etc. I’ve often observed dogs grow agitated at the very appearance of a particular individual, even before the person says a word. Wild animals will often remain calm and unconcerned around some people, but become nervous and aggressive when near others. Frequently they will flee a situation altogether if sensing a profound enough need for self-protection. Newspapers are filled with stories of women who were harmed by men whom they immediately and instinctively mistrusted, only to have over-ridden their own intuition with a rationalization based on need. Need for companionship, need to be liked, or not wanting to offend, or to think of oneself as ‘accepting’, or as ‘not ruled by fear’, or any one of a myriad of other reasons.

The point here is that we’re losing the ability to rely on gut-level perceptions. Remarkably, we’ve come to substitute flimsy rationale for the intuition that has been built into our very core. The intuition that was designed to ensure our well-being, our longevity, our personal prosperity. The thing about animals is that they are masters of the obvious. Because they don’t understand the words we (as people) speak, they cannot be misled by them. They tune in almost exclusively to body language, movement, facial expressions, twitches, ticks, and (when a person is speaking) tone and manner of voice. It is much more difficult, almost impossible, to fool an animal. Some animals (like people) will ignore their internal alarm in order to get something they want, but for the most part they pay attention to what their natural powers of observation are saying.

Over a great many years I have (from a distance) frequently watched conversations between people whose voices I could not hear. I have always been fascinated by those exchanges. Having no idea what was being discussed, it would still become fairly obvious if one person or the other was being genuine or not. Not a judgment I would make, but a loudly registered internal and natural perception (instinct). Some call it a sixth sense, usually accompanied by the implication that it is something that ‘some’ people have. In actuality, everyone has it. But not everybody uses it.

I have always enjoyed watching television with the sound turned off. Interesting how a particular actors’ performance can seem very good, even profound. But turn off the sound and you can see the flaws, even the dishonesty in the performance. You begin to realize how the words being spoken, the music of the soundtrack, even the laugh track, can enhance or disguise the true performance. You can see that an actor might not really believe what he’s saying. Watching an actor without sound can also produce the opposite result. You might see a more brilliant performance than you saw with the sound on. My point here is that sound (and especially words) can obscure the reality of what you might otherwise be seeing. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “He hides behind his words”? Many people do hide behind their words. Politicians in particular.

Don’t know about you, but with the campaigns for the presidential nominations in full gear, I’m getting pretty sick and tired of the phoniness being displayed by just about every one of the candidates. Everybody saying what you want to hear. Everybody pretending to be the candidate of integrity. The honest candidate. The one above the fray. And we’re going to be getting this dog and pony show shoved in our faces for the next year. Let’s face it, that’s politics, but we don’t really need to hear anything more they have to say.

I have a suggestion. Why not turn off the volume of the TV and just watch these people like an animal would. Silence doesn’t lie. You want to know who’s telling the truth? Who’s trying to fool you? Who’s hiding behind their words? Who actually believes what they’re saying? Politics aside, who you can trust as a person? I’ve been watching without the sound for a very long time now. I’m neither a Democrat or a Republican, and I don’t fully agree politically with any of these people, but I do know what I see. It registers on an instinctual level.
I’m pretty familiar with the politics of all four of these candidates. Some I like better than others. Some I dislike more than others. But the following conclusions are based solely on what I have observed of them without the hollow sound of their words. I must admit, two of the conclusions surprised me. Two did not.

If I were a dog greeting visitors in my keepers front yard, this is how I would respond to each of the four leading candidates for President if they came to my house.

Barak Obama - I’d meet him at the gate, lead him up the walk, through the house to the back yard where my family was gathered. And, based on my comfort level with him, they’d probably invite him to stay for the barbecue.

Mitt Romney – I’d meet him at the gate, lead him up the walk and through the house to the kitchen. I’d leave him there, and go out back to get my keepers. They’d come in and have coffee with him at the kitchen table.

John McCain – I’d meet him at the gate, lead him up the walk to the front porch, then go over to the side of the house and bark for my keepers to come out front to sit with him for a chat on the front porch.

Hillary Clinton - When I saw her coming from down the street I’d begin running the perimeter of the yard, barking loudly to deter her from coming any closer to my house. And to warn the neighbors that she was in the neighborhood.

Again, based solely on watching them to see what registers as genuine, and what does not.
Just my observations. You do your own.